Bees and the web of life

23 05 2013

beesI’m happily planning what will be my new organic kitchen garden, and I keep thinking about agriculture and how it relates to Fritjof Capra’s statement that we are all part of a vast interconnected universe – one that is constantly in flux. And I also keep returning to the subject of how agriculture, as practiced in the “developed” world, impacts us.

Across the United States and around the world, honey bee populations are mysteriously vanishing. Honey bee colony losses are not uncommon, however, the sort of disappearance I’m talking about is unprecedented: This honey bee colony loss (called colony-collapse disorder, CCD) is due to uncharacteristic bee behavior: bees are failing to return to the hive. And we don’t know why.

Given how important honeybees are to the food that we eat — bees help pollinate crops that are worth more than $200 billion a year — the fact that they are dying in large numbers, and we can’t say why, is very, very worrying. And it’s not just honey bees that are dying: according to a study written by a team of scientists including entomologist Sydney Cameron of the University of Illinois, the relative abundance of four species of bumble bees over the past few decades has dropped by more than 90%—and those disappearing species are also suffering from low genetic diversity, which makes them that much more susceptible to disease or environmental pressures.

CCD was first reported in 2006, when commercial beekeepers began noticing that their adult worker honeybees would suddenly flee the hive, ending up dead somewhere else. This led to the rapid loss of the colony. During normal years, commercial beekeepers expect to lose 10% to 15% of their colony, but over the past five years, mortality rates for commercial operations in the U.S. have ranged from 28% to 33%. This could be disastrous for our food supply: according to a study released by the United States Department of Agriculture in May, 2013, “the consequences for the agricultural economy — and even for our ability to feed ourselves — could be dire.”(1)

How is this of such concern? In California, the almond crop (as one example) is so large and intensively grown these days that it has greatly surpassed the region’s inherent ability to supply pollinators. Decades ago, when there were fewer almonds, farmers could rely on pollination just from the beekeepers who lived in the Central Valley. Now, they have to import migrant apian labor.

And now, bees are big business: Scientific AG, a firm based in Bakersfield, California, helps broker pollination deals between local almond growers and apiarists from across America. Joe Traynor, the pollination broker who founded Scientific AG, says that in the 1960s there were 100,000 acres (40,000 hectares) of groves. Today, groves cover 700,000 acres and the industry claims it supplies 80% of the world’s almonds. In order to meet this pollination demand, more than a third of America’s beehives must be moved to California for the season. Such changes to the industry have been reflected in the prices for bee hives. In 1995 growers could rent a hive for $35. Today, says Mr Traynor, a strong colony would cost $150-200. Beekeepers truck their hives cross country to pollinate almond groves in California, field crops and forages in the Midwest, apples and blueberries in the Northeast and citrus in Florida.

But now the bees are dying and nobody has pinned down the precise cause for CCD.

A lot of things can kill a hive, but nothing has devastated beekeeping in America in the last half century more than the accidental introduction of Varroa destructor in the mid-1980s. A tiny parasitic mite, varroa reproduces fast, and mite populations can and do overwhelm colonies and kill them outright. Varroa is credited with wiping out the wild bee population in North America. Breeding a varroa-resistant bee is the holy grail of American beekeepers. And often varroa mites are cited as a cause of CCD, but varroa mites were present in North America 20 years before CCD.

Other types of fungus (such as Nosema ceranae, a parasitic fungus from Asia which impacts a bee’s ability to process food) have been mentioned. But there is almost certainly a further factor causing stress on the bees—a poor diet.

It is increasingly being recognized that managed bees need food supplements. In some places, a decline in the area of pasture land on which they can forage, the loss of weedy borders and the growth of crop monocultures mean it is hard for bees to find a wide enough range of pollen sources to obtain all their essential amino acids. In extreme cases they may not even find enough basic protein. Writing in Bee Culture, February 2009, Mr Traynor observes that places where crops with low-protein pollens are grown (such as blueberries and sunflowers) are also places where CCD has appeared.

The suggestion is that poor nutrition has weakened the bees’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to viruses and other parasites. Feeding bees supplements, rather than relying on their ability to forage in the wild, costs time and money. Many beekeepers therefore try to avoid it. Anecdote suggests, however, that those who do fork out find their colonies are far more resistant to CCD.

New research suggests yet another potential contributor to CCD. The problem? We’ve been stealing the bees’ honey, which aids the bee’s “immune systems”—detoxification enzymes used to rid the body of foreign chemicals, like pesticides – and instead feeding them high fructose corn syrup. Commercial beekeepers feed bees high fructose corn syrup instead of honey for the same reason that commercial food manufacturers feed it to us: it’s cheaper.(2)

And of course, there are pesticides. Systemic pesticides like imidacloprid and clothianidin, so-called “neonics,” are persistent in soils for as long as two years, are water-soluble so they can travel far from their original application, and they’re taken up by plants’ roots and circulated throughout, so leaves, nectar, pollen, fruit – indeed, all of the plant is contaminated. The European Union recently instituted a two year ban on neonics. Research at Washington State University has found that pesticides embedded in old honeycombs is a major contributors to CCD.(3) They found traces of insecticides, herbicides, miticides and fungicides in honeycombs and bees raised in those hives had “significantly reduced longevity”.

Even more far-fetched concerns for CCD include cellphones and GMO crops.

But here’s the thing: Australia is one of the few nations in the world to have remained free of varroa mite (so far). And Australia – which has cellphones and towers, migratory and commercial beekeeping, neonic pesticides in agriculture, high fructose corn syrup for supplemental feeding, and environmental factors like drought and urbanization and all the rest – has had zero incidents of colony collapse disorder.
So, going back to Fritjof Capra and his insistence that the “web of life” is made up of a series of interconnected things, could it not be because of all of the above? Bees are stressed by loss of habitat, infection from fungus and mites, pesticides and poor nutrition – perhaps they’re just reaching the tipping point?

(1) http://science.time.com/2013/05/07/beepocalypse-redux-honey-bees-are-still-dying-and-we-still-dont-know-why/
(2) http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/05/feeding-bees-corn-syrup-may-leave-them-vulnerable-to-colony-collapse/
(3) http://researchnews.wsu.edu/environment/248.html

Advertisements




The new ecoliteracy

16 05 2013

This blog is supposed to be “textile specific”, meaning we try to keep the topics restricted to those things that apply to the growing of fibers, or the manufacture of synthetic fibers, and the processing of those fibers into cloth.

But society seems to have tunnel vision about many things, such as chemical use. Bisphenol A (BPA) is supposed to be bad for us, so it has been prohibited in baby bottles by legislation. And manufacturers of water bottles advertise that their bottles are “BPA free”. But BPA is used in many other products, from dental sealants to paper cash register receipts – and in textiles, its used in printing ink emulsions.

I had been bothered by the banning of a certain chemical in certain products, and not others (as if BPA in a cash register receipt is not as bad as in a water bottle) when I found this quote by John Muir:

“Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

And then I found Fritjof Capra.

Fritjof Capra, a physicist and systems theorist, is a co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy, which supports and advances education for sustainable living. Dr. Capra says that we are all part of an interconnected and self-organizing universe of changing patterns and flowing energy – the “web of life”. Everything is interrelated. He suggests that a full understanding of the critical issues of our time requires a new ecological understanding of life (a new “ecological literacy”) as well as a new kind of “systemic” thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.

So, in order to understand why world hunger is rising again after a long and steady decline, or what food prices have to do with the price of oil, or why is it so important to grow food locally and organically, we need this new systemic thinking. Fritjof Capra wrote an essay about how to do this, based on a speech he gave at Columbia University in 2008, some of which is excerpted here:

To understand how nature sustains life, we need to move from biology to ecology, because sustained life is a property of an ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization, or principles of ecology, is what we mean by “ecological literacy.”

…In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships.

It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – human and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.

The fact that ecological sustainability is a property of a web of relationships means that in order to understand it properly, in order to become ecologically literate, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships, in terms of interconnections, patterns, context. In science, this type of thinking is known as systemic thinking or “systems thinking.” It is crucial for understanding ecology, because ecology – derived from the Greek word oikos (“household”) – is the science of relationships among the various members of the Earth Household.

…systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from the parts to the whole. The early systems thinkers coined the phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

What exactly does this mean? In what sense is the whole more than the sum of its parts? The answer is: relationships. All the essential properties of a living system depend on the relationships among the system’s components. Systems thinking means thinking in terms of relationships.

Once we become ecologically literate, once we understand the processes and patterns of relationships that enable ecosystems to sustain life, we will also understand the many ways in which our human civilization, especially since the Industrial Revolution, has ignored these ecological patterns and processes and has interfered with them. And we will realize that these interferences are the fundamental causes of many of our current world problems.

It is now becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which mean that they are all interconnected and interdependent. One of the most detailed and masterful documentations of the fundamental interconnectedness of world problems is the new book by Lester Brown, Plan B (Norton, 2008). Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, demonstrates in this book with impeccable clarity how the vicious circle of demographic pressure and poverty leads to the depletion of resources – falling water tables, wells going dry, shrinking forests, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, grasslands turning into desert, and so on – and how this resource depletion, exacerbated by climate change, produces failing states whose governments can no longer provide security for their citizens, some of whom in sheer desperation turn to terrorism.

When you read this book, you will understand how virtually all our environmental problems are threats to our food security – falling water tables; increasing conversion of cropland to non-farm uses; more extreme climate events, such as heat waves, droughts, and floods; and, most recently, increasing diversion of grains to biofuel.

A critical factor in all this is the fact that world oil production is reaching its peak. This means that, from now on, oil production will begin to decrease worldwide, extraction of the remaining oil will be more and more costly, and hence the price of oil will continue to rise. Most affected will be the oil-intensive segments of the global economy, in particular the automobile, food, and airline industries.

The search for alternative energy sources has recently led to increased production of ethanol and other biofuels, especially in the United States, Brazil, and China. And since the fuel-value of grain is higher on the markets than its food-value, more and more grain is diverted from food to producing fuels. At the same time, the price of grain is moving up toward the oil-equivalent value. This is one of the main reasons for the recent sharp rise of food prices. Another reason, of course, is that a petrochemical, mechanized, and centralized system of agriculture is highly dependent on oil and will produce more expensive food as the price of oil increases. Indeed, industrial farming uses 10 times more energy than sustainable, organic farming.

The fact that the price of grain is now keyed to the price of oil is only possible because our global economic system has no ethical dimension. In such a system, the question, “Shall we use grain to fuel cars or to feed people?” has a clear answer. The market says, “Let’s fuel the cars.”

This is even more perverse in view of the fact that 20 percent of our grain harvest will supply less than 4 percent of automotive fuel. Indeed, the entire ethanol production in this country could easily be replaced by raising average fuel efficiency by 20 percent (i.e. from 21 mpg to 25 mpg), which is nothing, given the technologies available today.

The recent sharp increase in grain prices has wreaked havoc in the world’s grain markets, and world hunger is now on the rise again after a long steady decline. In addition, increased fuel consumption accelerates global warming, which results in crop losses in heat waves that make crops wither, and from the loss of glaciers that feed rivers essential to irrigation. When we think systemically and understand how all these processes are interrelated, we realize that the vehicles we drive, and other consumer choices we make, have a major impact on the food supply to large populations in Asia and Africa.

All these problems, ultimately, must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most people in our society, and especially our political and corporate leaders, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.

The main message of Lester Brown’s Plan B, is that there are solutions to the major problems of our time; some of them even simple. But they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, our values. And, indeed, we are now at the beginning of such a fundamental change of worldview, a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican Revolution. Systems thinking and ecological literacy are two key elements of the new paradigm, and very helpful for understanding the interconnections between food, health, and the environment, but also for understanding the profound transformation that is needed globally for humanity to survive.